Skip to main content
KBS_Icon_questionmark link-ico
HERO IR Essay 1800x500 ;

The Integrated Review in Context: The Importance of Hard Choices

This essay was first published in July 2021, in the first volume of the Centre for Defence Studies series on The Integrated Review in Context: A Strategy Fit for the 2020s?

Reading the 2021 Integrated Review brought back for me memories of the fraught early months of the Cameron/Clegg coalition government in 2010. As the UK’s first National Security Adviser, it was one of my tasks to coordinate the National Security Strategy (NSS) and Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). After a considerable scramble, they were published in October 2010, a bare five months after the Government took office.

At the time, it felt like a Herculean labour to put together the first strategic review for 12 years in such a short time. We broke new ground by going well beyond the traditional scope of a defence review to cover foreign policy, development, domestic security and (for the first time) the issue of resilience. We also had to contend with a £38 billion gap between the defence programme and the Ministry of Defence’s budget, at a time when austerity was putting the public finances under acute pressure.

The authors of the 2021 review faced an even more daunting task. They had to grapple with the unsettling return of great power rivalries, and in particular the generational struggle which was developing between the US and China. Taken together with Britain’s departure from the European Union and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, this amounted to a seismic shift in the landscape of Britain’s national security without parallel since the late 1940s. The cross-government team deserve much credit for assembling a Review which ranges even wider than the 2010 version to set out a large number of ambitious goals covering complex areas of policy in clear and thoughtful terms.

Assessing the Integrated Review

The 2021 Review has many strengths. The Government was surely right to set ambitious targets for Britain’s role in science and technology, in reforming the global health system and in the vital area of regulatory diplomacy, influencing the norms and standards which will govern technologies of the future. There was a welcome commitment that Britain would work to shape the international order of the future. The much-heralded Indo-Pacific tilt turned out to be a measured call for deeper economic engagement and stronger defence cooperation with Asian allies.

The Review struck a careful balance on policy towards China between vigilance on security and a working relationship in other areas including climate change, – Lord Ricketts

which the Review indicates will be the UK’s international priority through the Glasgow climate summit and beyond.

Does the Integrated Review succeed in turning the Global Britain slogan into a new national strategy? A good test is to apply the definition of a good strategy given by the Yale Professor John Lewis Gaddis: ‘the alignment of potentially unlimited aspirations with necessarily limited capabilities’. Measured against that yardstick, the Integrated Review marks an important first step, but falls well short of a fully-rounded strategy for post-Brexit Britain. The 2010 process was far from perfect, but I believe it can shed light on two areas of weakness which I see in the Integrated Review.

First, the issue of setting priorities and making choices. In 2010, we based the NSS on a systematic risk assessment process, which enabled us to prioritise national security risks into three tiers based on a matrix measuring both the likelihood and the impact of each risk. In the top tier, we identified two risks which were already in the spotlight: a further international military intervention, and countering the terrorist threat. The other two top tier risks were new: major cyber attacks, and natural hazards including floods and pandemics (which had not previously been considered as part of national security). The NSS and SDSR were also published on the same day as the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review setting budgets for all government departments. This gave us the opportunity to ensure that the top national security risks we had identified received extra funding in the spending review. I would argue that we succeeded in combining ends, ways and means which is a necessary if not sufficient component of making good strategy.

The 2021 Integrated Review sets out bold aspirations for Britain to play a leadership role in almost every area of international cooperation, and to increase engagement in the Indo-Pacific, Africa and the Gulf, at a time when it is also pledged to be the leading European nation in NATO. Nowhere is there a recognition that resources – whether of people, budgets or ministerial energies – are finite. In the end,

good strategy comes down to making choices. I do not find any in the Integrated Review and I do not therefore see how it can provide a useful guide to resource allocation.– Lord Ricketts

Integration or Incoherence?

The second area of weakness is an incoherence between the Government’s declared ambitions and some of their real-life policy decisions. This may arise partly because the Review seems to have taken place separately from the budget-setting process. In fact the two funding decisions which shaped the context for the Review were taken well before it was completed, and announced in November 2020. The first, that the defence budget would be increased by £4bn a year for four years, sent a strong signal about the UK’s commitment to hard power and a leading role in NATO, which buttressed some of the themes of the Review. But the second, that the aid budget would be cut by a similar amount in 2021 and for an uncertain period beyond that, sent an equally strong signal which contradicted the Integrated Review’s commitment that the UK would remain a soft power superpower. Budget decisions for other government departments will have to wait for the Comprehensive Spending Review in late 2021, which increases the risk that some of the aspirations set out in the Review will not be followed up with the necessary resources.

Some other decisions by the Government are also hard to square with the Integrated Review’s ambitions.

The threat to break international law sits awkwardly with the Review’s claim that the UK is a ‘model of democratic governance and legal systems’– Lord Ricketts

The Government’s refusal to negotiate any structured relationship with the EU on foreign policy, security or defence will weaken the UK’s capacity to play a leading role in climate diplomacy or in setting the norms and standards: in both these areas and many more, the EU wields greater influence than the UK acting alone.

No document with as bold a scope as the Integrated Review can hope to resolve all the tensions which are inevitable in foreign policy. But actions speak louder than words. A lesson of 2010 is that, to be truly integrated, a review process needs not just to assemble a wish-list of ambitions, but to make choices among them, and then to join those up with resource decisions in one coherent whole.


Lord Ricketts is a visiting professor in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. He was the United Kingdom’s first National Security Adviser (2010-12) and is a former Permanent Under Secretary of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Head of the Diplomatic Service (2006-10) and Ambassador to France (2012-16). Lord Ricketts is the author of the recently-published Hard Choices: What Britain Does Next (London: Atlantic Books, 2021).



Read the full collection here

In this story

Peter Ricketts

Peter Ricketts

Visiting Professor

Latest news